Jim’s father wanted his children to succeed.
But the guy was hardcore.
If Jim didn’t act 'tough enough' during an ice hockey game, for example, he called his son a wimp.
His mother was caring.
But she demanded Einstein-esque standards.
When I was fifteen, she told me that if her children earned 90 percent on an exam, that meant they failed to learn 10 percent of the material.
I practically grew up with Jim.
But I can’t recall his father ever praising his achievements.
Instead, he always told Jim that he could be doing better.
Your parents or grandparents might have been similar.
It was common.
Perhaps as a result, psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s began talking about the need for parents to build their children’s self-esteem.
And people listened.
But has it gone too far?
Amy Chua would say yes.
The bestselling author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, says most western parents heap too much praise on their children.
Developmentally, she says, that makes them weak.
Her ideas are controversial.
But could she be right?
We now give children trophies for participation.
Parents shower kids with praise, protecting them from trouble and defending their behaviour at school… even when the children are in the wrong.
As a teacher, I found the latter most amusing.
I continue to hear headmasters say, “We can’t punish children for some of the mean, insensitive or ridiculous things they do because the parents defend them and deny it. Parents didn’t do that at the beginning of my career.”
Stewart Beyer, a teacher with two young children, echoes that as well:
“As a teacher who has worked with students ranging from age 10-18 over the past decade, I have had the chance to bear witness to a lot of parental behaviour. I think an important variation of “excessive praise” is simply the belief some parents hold that their children can do no evil. Many parents these days are unwilling to believe accounts of their children’s behaviour, while others sympathise but do little at home to correct the issue.”
Psychotherapist, Lori Gottlieb says such unconditional support has come at a cost.
When she first started helping people with depression, most of her patients came from difficult upbringings.
But over time, she and her fellow psychotherapists noticed a shift among people in their twenties.
“Instead, these patients talked about how much they ‘adored’ their parents. Many called their parents their ‘best friends in the whole world,’ and they’d say things like ‘My parents are always there for me.’”
Gottlieb spoke with Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA.
He says parents often bend backwards to ensure that their kids avoid “anything less than pleasant.”
He adds that if kids can’t handle frustrations on their own, they think there’s something wrong with them.
Andrea Stanberg is an educator who serves as France’s representative for the Virtue Project’s International Advisory Council.
The group aims to guide educators and parents on the kind of language they should use when teaching and raising children.
“Indulging or catering to children disempowers them,” she says.
“They grow up wanting others to solve their problems for them. They never develop their strength.”
Not experiencing failure or criticism, in fact, can impact even the most gifted kids.
Geoff Colvin, the bestselling author of Talent Is Overrated says constant practice and specific feedback make people successful.
When kids don’t face adversity, they have a tough time overcoming life’s challenges as adults.
Colvin quotes Josh Waitzkin, the child prodigy chess player featured in the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer.
“The most gifted kids in chess fall apart. They are told that they are winners, and when they inevitably run into a wall, they get stuck and think they must be losers.”
The schoolteacher, Kelly Vaughan Owens, recalls a great lesson she learned from her mother-in-law:
“When your kid falls, clap.”
This aligns with what renowned psychologist Carol Dweck says in her book, Mindset.
She says children shouldn’t be told they are “smart” or “a really good artist,” or “a really great student.”
Instead, they should be praised for the difficulty of the tasks they tackle.
They should be commended for their efforts, and specifically asked about what they learn from failure.
Ms. Dweck wanted to see how praise affects kids, so her research team gave children a series of puzzles to solve.
The first puzzle was easy.
When it was done, some of the kids were told they were smart.
Others were praised for working hard.
Researchers then gave the kids a choice.
They could do another simple puzzle.
Or they could try a tough one.
Most of the kids who were told that they were smart selected the easier puzzle.
But the kids who were praised for working hard chose the tougher puzzle.
The researchers also found that praising kids for their effort makes them more resilient.
In contrast, the kids who were given the “smart” label didn’t want to take risks.
They couldn’t face failure.
Leanne Robins is a high school Biology teacher in Abu Dhabi.
As a single mom, she has an eight-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter.
She has also learned to be careful and specific with praise and criticism:
“I praise when I see my children demonstrating the values that I have tried teaching them: kindness, good manners and empathy. And I criticise them when they behave in a way that does not represent our values. Most importantly, I explain specifically why I’m giving them praise or criticism.”
Some researchers, such as a team at Ohio State University, say values such as what Ms. Robins is teaching her children, have fallen prey to increased levels of narcissism in Western countries.
One of the researchers, Eddie Brummelman told Forbes writer, Alice G. Walton,
“Narcissistic children feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges and crave for constant admiration from others. Subgroups of narcissists, especially those with low self-esteem, are at increased risk to develop anxiety and depression.”
Raising kids and teaching them has never been easy.
But we have to be careful about pendulum swings.
Perhaps parents in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, didn’t dump praise and support on kids, like they do today.
But a balance between what we did then, and what we do now, could contribute to a lot more success…and happiness.
Andrew Hallam is the best-selling author of Millionaire Expat (3rd edition), Balance, and Millionaire Teacher.